MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi follow. Proceed accordingly. You can read my spoiler-free review of the movie here: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
As it turns out, Luke Skywalker didn’t bring balance to the Force. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he nailed a revolutionary thesis to the docking bay door.
In the eighth chapter of the Skywalker saga, the Star Wars mythology – and its theology – gets its Protestant Reformation.
A mythos anchored in Eastern mysticism is turned upside down by Western philosophy in The Last Jedi, but before you start applauding its seeming democratic embrace, we must struggle with the reality that Ben Solo, a.k.a. Kylo Ren, essentially believes the same thing his Uncle Luke does: kill it all.
Is that really what we want?
Kylo Ren, actually, is the Martin Luther of this galaxy more than Luke Skywalker is, though both serve as founding Reformation fathers for the Force.
Let’s take a look at the Biblical / Historical archetypes these characters mirror, what that could possibly mean for the concluding chapter of the Skywalker story, and the rebellious turn it takes from the very foundation George Lucas established in the first two trilogies (and that J.J. Abrams venerated in the first episode of the third).
To understand Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII, we should start further back than Martin Luther and look to the Apostle Peter.
In the nascent stages of Christianity, the first apostles and believers were Jewish; they perceived its message and mission was meant for fellow Jews. But in Acts Chapter 10, we see the account of Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius. You can read that story here, but the essence is this:
Peter comes to understand, from the Lord Himself, that the Gospel is for everyone.
It is not up to Jewish laws and tradition to determine what is clean or unclean. That’s up to the Lord. As Peter says: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (The Apostle Paul continues this expansive approach, as seen in chapters 13 and 22.)
This, essentially, is Luke’s position in The Last Jedi, telling Rey it is hubris to think that the power of the Force is somehow limited to, contained in, or can only be practiced by a particular people.
The parallel, however, diverges as Luke’s response to this epiphany is literally the opposite of Peter and Paul’s. They worked to expand their religion; Luke wants to end his. He’s Martin Luther taken to an extreme because, to pull another Biblical parallel, Luke comes to see that even the Elect could be deceived.
Kylo Ren isn’t quite so nuclear. For him, the Force should survive but in the hands of those who hold it now, not beholden to the caretakers that came before. Their papal authority, if you will, was corrupt and can’t be trusted. He’s tired of their indulgences. It’s up to him and others (like Rey) to make of the Force what they will.
He chooses to give in to the Dark Side of this spirituality, a blasphemous road to be sure, but what’s intriguing is what he asks of Rey. His outreach to her isn’t a power grab like it was for Snoke, Vader, and the Emperor before him. Yes, he wants her to join him, but not as his apprentice; rather, as an equal. Together, they can do this whole Force thing differently (sort of her John Calvin to his Martin Luther).
It’s a sincere, earnest call to walk away completely from the old (catholic) order, to chart a new way of seeing the Force by making the most important shift of all: to reject the notion of a single, institutional authority.
In other words (Latin, as you’re about to see), Kylo Ren believes that practitioners of the Force should follow a new dictum, one philosophically consistent with the Protestant clarion call, “Ecclesia semper reformanda est”. In English: “The church must always be reformed.”
According to Yoda, the greatest master of all, even the Jedi’s sacred texts aren’t a guiding bedrock, as he sarcastically declares, “Pager-turners, they were not.” Luke, for his part, comes around by the end, but only to honor the past, not continue it as it once was.
This is best symbolized when he gives Leia the hanging dice from the Millennium Falcon. Like him, the dice are merely a hologram projection. The gift, then, isn’t permanent. Instead, it’s a gesture that says, “Remember the past. Cherish it. But move on.”
Rey, however, may hold to a version of Sola Scriptura that Luke has moved past (if you missed it, she stole and protected the Jedi sacred texts before Yoda burned down the tree that held them). But without a higher authority, even those texts are only as good as one’s interpretation of them. Sorry Reformers, but Sola Scriptura has its limitations. There still needs to be a church; a Jedi Order.
So it comes down to this: what do you think of the Force – or, more broadly, of Star Wars itself – undergoing a Reformation? It is a good idea? A necessary one? It may very well depend on your own religious practice (or lack thereof).
For worldviews both Protestant and Secular, The Last Jedi could serve as an exciting split from the past, one filled with denominational and democratic possibilities. With no single absolute authority, think of all the beautiful expressions that any person or sect with an affinity for the Force (or its ideals) could come up with! Even with the risk of corrupt, heretical practices, at least some could be pure, if interpreted correctly (a big “if”). Or, at least, if meant well.
Forget a single Jedi or Sith order; now the Force can have its Anglicans and Baptists, its Evangelicals and Charismatics, and on and on and on (and on and on…). Or for Secularists, they can span across their own form of Liberals and Conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, and more.
To put it another way, with The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson has taken a lightsaber to George Lucas and sought to vanquish him – and nearly all that he created – by undercutting the mysterious and mystical in the effort to humanize it.
Lucas believed in an Orthodoxy. Johnson does not. He is the provocative (and paraphrased) Time cover that asks “Is George Lucas Dead?”
The question for you is…how do you want that answered?
Do you want Episode IX to affirm Episode VIII, that the Force’s immaculate conception in Episode I didn’t matter, or even that it was wrong? Do you want the idea of a “One” who brings balance to the Force to be, in the words of a younger, more cynical Han Solo, the superstition of a “hokey religion”? Is that Jedi religion an eternal truth, or simply a thing of the past?
Do you want the saga that fought for the values of the Jedi Order, and the sacredness of that religion’s spirituality (its traditions, its disciplines, its ascetics, its convictions), to conclude that, instead, a Post-Modern galaxy is actually a better place to be?
I believe that’s what Rian Johnson wants. I’m not so sure returning director J.J. Abrams does.
If he doesn’t, then what does Abrams do with what Johnson has left him? How could he salvage or even convert back to what the saga has always stood for? The answer is in imagining what the arc of this trilogy could be:
- EPISODE VII: Build Myth Up
- EPISODE VIII: Tear Myth Down
- EPISODE IX: Bring Balance To Both
But what would that kind of balance look like? Answer: exactly how George Lucas first envisioned it – a democratic republic, protected by a righteous Jedi Order.
And the One? Is Rey, at long last, the hoped-for messiah? Perhaps, or possibly more.
If her parents truly are nobodies, maybe they really are nobody. In the most literal sense. (It wouldn’t be the first time a Ben has lied to a young, powerful Jedi about parentage.) Incarnated solely and wholly by the Force itself, not conceived through a human as Anakin was, Rey may actually be The Second Coming, the one who fulfills the peace and purpose (her words) that the first one began.
Episodes I through VII proclaim that there is a “One”. That is the core of the “Hero’s Journey”, which those episodes faithfully follow. Episode VIII tears that down, saying there isn’t a “One”; there’s only everyone.
Or does it? Consider:
In every heroic venture that Poe, Finn, and Rose set out on, they failed. And not only failed; they made things worse. Poe’s decisions early on destroyed a large chunk of the fleet, then Finn and Rose’s foolhardy secret mission resulted in the rebel escape plan being discovered and nearly the entire remaining fleet obliterated. Brave and noble though they may be, those three have a lot of blood on their hands and nothing to show for it.
The First Order had the rebels dead to rights. Then the Chosen Ones showed up.
The rebel attack during the climactic Battle of Crait is only successful because Rey swoops in to back them up, making the Falcon the primary target for an obsessed Kylo. Next, it takes the return of Holographic Luke to finish off the diversion so that the rebels can escape, and only then can they succeed because Rey moves a boulder pile with her considerable Jedi powers and has the ship to carry them.
If The Last Jedi is largely a subversion of “The One” mythos, then Johnson ends things by subverting the subversion. In essence, if Rey and Luke don’t show up, the remaining rebels are slaughtered. It’s that simple.
So what does that mean for the final chapter? Here’s my hope.
Episode IX will say, “It’s not a choice between The One or everyone. It’s both.” The One and everyone. That’s balance. The former sacrificially leads the latter, and the latter responds in grateful submission to an unconditional love, one that is bigger than them all.
For it’s the communion between both that will fulfill their destiny.